The Complexities of Talking About Race When Trapped Within Its Confines
Thomas Chatterton Williams Embraces His Doubt
I used to have a kind of recurring daydream several years ago. It’s a couple of decades into the future, and there’s a young woman with pale skin and blond hair and light blue eyes. She’s seated at a café table somewhere in Europe. And this young woman, perhaps she is gathered with work colleagues, offhandedly remarks—in the dispassionate tone of one of my old Catholic-school classmates claiming to have a dash of Cherokee or Iroquois blood—that as improbable as it may seem, she once had black ancestors in America.
She says it all so matter-of-factly, with no visceral aspect to the telling. I imagine the vague surprise of the people she is sitting with, perhaps a raised eyebrow or two or perhaps not even that—and if I want to torture myself, I detect an ironic smirk or giggle. Then, to my horror, I see the conversation grow not ugly or embittered or anything like that but simply pass on, giving way to other, lesser matters, plans for the weekend or questions about the menu, perhaps.
And then it’s over. Just like that, in one casual exchange, I see a history, a struggle, a culture, the whole vibrant and populated world of my ancestors—and of myself—dissolve into the void. I see a potential Marlow that I could no longer recognize.
To this day, feelings something like panic still creep in. On the one hand, there is the acute and very specific panic of wondering if I have indeed, along with my brother, permanently altered the culture or mind-set or physiognomy or, yes, the very “race” of an entire line of people, like a freight train slowly but irrevocably switching tracks. On the other, there is the subtler, lower-decibel, gnawing panic, which manifests as a plain awareness of the unearned advantage. It is impossible not to feel that.
At a time when, despite all of the tremendous societal progress, blackness—certainly not always but especially at that vexed intersection with poverty or the cultural signifiers of such—is still subject to all manner of violation and disrespect; at a time when people perceived as black continue to be stopped, frisked, stalked, harassed, choked-out, and drilled with bullets in broad daylight and left to bake in the street—what does it mean to have escaped a fate? Put baldly, what is proximity to the idea of whiteness worth and what does color cost? And the reverse?
These are questions I’m still learning how to answer. With the recent birth of my second child, Saul, a six-week-old Venetian blond, with even bluer eyes than his sister’s, the questions have evolved to encompass subtler aspects of gender, too. I suspect it will be something else altogether to raise a white-looking male. But I have also learned to pose the questions in other ways now. I have begun to acknowledge—to myself mostly, but more and more when others ask—that what I have proximity to is, in fact, neither whiteness nor blackness in the abstract but actual family and friends, which is to say real flesh-and-blood people, of different hues and heritages, nothing more or less.
“But any fool can see that the white people are not really white and that black people are not black.” It is worth repeating Albert Murray’s point, which I have begun to insist on, timidly at first but with growing confidence as the days of my new familial reality have accumulated out of mere conjecture and into the stuff of real life. I am determined to live with precisely this level of childlike foolishness.
It is the only antidote I’m yet aware of to the poisonous disingenuousness of an adult world that deploys color metaphors to sort people into real-life castes—color castes capable of insidiously coopting even anti-racist resistance into further reinforcement of those same illegitimate and consequential terms.What I know now is that I used to not just tolerate but submit to and even on some deep level need our society’s web of problems called race.
About the dual plight of the anti-Communist dissident, Ryszard Kapuscinski wrote potently and in ways that speak to the subtle dangers those of us who would oppose racism face when opposing it while continuing to accept—even for the sake of argument—the dubious premise of race. “On this subject [the dissident] can discourse with energy and passion for hours,” Kapuscinski writes, “concoct schemes, present proposals and plans, unaware that as he does so he becomes for a second time communism’s victim: the first time he was a victim by force, imprisoned by the system, and now he has become a victim voluntarily, for he has allowed himself to be imprisoned in the web of communism’s problems. For such is the demonic nature of great evil—that without our knowledge and consent, it manages to blind us and force us into its straitjacket.”
We could substitute the word “race” in the above passage at each instance of “communism” and arrive at a parallel insight about the nature of an even larger system of “great evil” that ensnares us all; it would perhaps become even more convincing in the process. The truth is that no matter how long and hard you try—you cannot struggle your way out of a straitjacket that does not exist. But pretending it exists, for whatever the reason, really does leave you in a severely restricted posture. I want to stand tall, with my full range of motion intact.
What I know now is that I used to not just tolerate but submit to and even on some deep level need our society’s web of problems called race, its received and dangerous habits of thinking about and organizing people along a binary of white and black, free and unfree, even once I suspected them to be irredeemably flawed. Baldwin pointed out that it is so much easier to sink deeper into a lukewarm bath than to stand and walk away. He was correct, but for my children’s sake if not my own, I can’t linger any longer.
Now, if I find liberation in moments of doubt, it comes with the one movement I always end up having to make, the only movement I can make—away from the abstract, general, and hypothetical and back into the jagged grain of the here and now, into the humanizing specificity of my love for my father, mother, brother, wife, and children, and into my sheer delight in their existence as distinct and irreplaceable people, not “bodies”—as contemporary lingo would have it—or avatars, sites of racial characteristics and traits, reincarnations of conflicts and prejudices past.
Through these people I love, I am left with myself as the same, as a man and a human being who is free to choose and who has made choices and is not reducible to a set of historical circumstances and mistakes.
A few weeks after Saul was born, Valentine and I spent several weeks at an old rented house in the Luberon region of Provence. Over the course of our stay many different family members and friends came to meet the baby, swim, and pass the cool mornings and the starlit nights on the terrace overlooking a valley of vineyards and umbrella pines.
Blacks (of a variety of mixes), Jews, gentiles, Arabs, Asians, French-speakers (some with roots in the former colonies, some with the prefix “de” in their family names), and plain-old Americans all passed through, all broke bread, all sipped the same wine. What was exceptional in this painfully tribal world was how normal and natural it all seemed. I don’t know if I can ever attain—or should want to attain—a state where I do not notice the various ethnic and social differences among us, but I have already ceased to allow those differences to dominate and determine the exchange.
While at the house, most mornings I would strap Saul to my chest and pace the terrace to calm him while Valentine recouped some of the sleep she’d lost while nursing the night before. One day, I was rereading Camus as my footsteps lulled my son to sleep. The massif of the Luberon, the slash of mountain framing my view, would have been familiar to the great writer. After an impoverished childhood in Algeria and a meteoric rise in Paris, several years before he died in a horrific crash, Camus used his Nobel earnings to buy a home in the nearby medieval town of Lourmarin, where the simplest stone slab marks his grave in the sunniest cemetery I have ever seen.
The elements and the years have nearly wiped away his name, but whenever we are in the area, we manage to find that stone and bow our heads. We had visited the grave the previous day, and as I was pacing with Saul, I shielded his nearly translucent skin from the blazing light with one hand and scrolled across a line from Camus on the phone I held in the one that was free. “Poverty kept me from thinking all was well under the sun and in history,” he wrote. But “the sun taught me that history was not everything.”
The loudest and most insistent voices dominating the conversation around race today are radically out of step with such a wise and supple view. All seem to have rigidly subscribed to William Faulkner’s not completely mistaken insight (though Faulkner himself would certainly prove problematic today) that “the past is not dead, it’s not even past.” History is everywhere and all around us, these voices remind us as they pounce on past atrocities with an almost masochistic glee: the United States was founded on the triple sin of slavery, genocide, and theft of land.
The majority of the world has been subjugated under the yoke of European colonialism. The poor everywhere are sacrificed at the altar of capitalist greed. The plague of white supremacy—spreading now through the United States and Europe—as Camus warned us never entirely goes away, it only lies dormant for a spell. All of this is true—in part at least, since reality is always stubbornly more complicated—yet the formulation that holds that we are merely beholden to uncountable deeds and decisions already concluded misses something of equal veracity that Camus understood well and that I felt I could see right then—could even feel it on my skin.
History has many noble uses. I grasp the context in which it arrives, for example, that my father inherited less wealth from his people than my mother did from hers. And so I understand the policy implications and historical processes this expresses, and this awareness gives me both perspective as well as empathy and also humility when I think of what he went through in order, specifically, to right for his children some of these enormous collective wrongs.
But history’s utility, while necessary, is diminished greatly when it smothers the light of the present day, overshadowing the genuine possibility and beauty the here and now may contain with reference to nothing further than itself. We have a responsibility to remember, yes, but we also have the right and I believe even the duty to continuously remake ourselves anew.
There is a millennia-old philosophical experiment called Theseus’s paradox or the ship of Theseus about the mythical founding-king of Athens who kept a 30-oar vessel docked in the harbor. The ship was preserved in a seaworthy state through the continual replacement of old timber planks with new ones, piecemeal, until the question inevitably arose: After all of the original planks have been replaced by new and different planks, is it still, in fact, the same ship?
I learned about the paradox in college but it acquired the power to haunt me around the same time I began to have that daydream about the girl from the future, sitting at her café table discussing the ironies of ancestry with her new and unknowable friends. Will it or won’t it be the same ship? I once posed the question to an old childhood friend. We were sitting in my parents’ backyard in New Jersey, Marlow was playing on the grass in the distance.
My friend, who is “black” (though if he is on average, as I suspect, he is also significantly “mixed”), thought hard and replied that, for better or worse, he saw a different ship. Yet the question is a trap. The answer depends on what you see when you look at the vessel—do you believe that color is inherent (let alone meaningful), or are you willing to entertain that whatever color you might think you see is itself the result of the perceptive act?
Not a day passes that I do not try to imagine the person my daughter—and now my son along with her—will be shaped into, the places where she will feel at home, and the ways she will learn to perceive. And what I’d want to say to that future Marlow is this: The drive to flatten difference, the inclination to erase and define ourselves against some other, is something we can never allow ourselves to condone. We must always be on the side that celebrates and cultivates variety, accepting without fetishizing difference.
We must confront our own biases at every turn. I would remind her of another age-old experiment: Take a chicken, hold its head to the ground, and draw a line with a stick; when you let go it will stay there, hypnotized and unable to move, though it is free as ever to take flight. What I’d explain to this future Marlow is that we are not chickens, and the past sketched all around us in fading marks cannot immobilize us unless we allow it to.
I would want her to know that as long as she lives, there will be more and more people like her, people who are more than what at first they seem. What might all of our lives look like if they—and the rest of us who are willing along with them—decided to lift ourselves up and walk away?
From Self-Portrait in Black and White: Unlearning Race. Used with the permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. Copyright © 2019 by Thomas Chatterton Williams.